Molly White
Tech lead, software engineer, Wikipedian

The use of "Assume Good Faith" to shut down discussions about sexism on Wikipedia

by Molly White on

Last week, the news media exploded with headlines about the first direct image of a black hole, and one of the scientists responsible for its creation, Dr. Katie Bouman. The incredible efforts of the scientists behind the image were quickly tarnished, as many efforts involving women scientists are, by internet trolls who worked tirelessly to “debunk” Dr. Bouman’s efforts and the role she played in the accomplishment. She didn’t write much of the code or the algorithms, they said. One of her colleagues (a white man) was being denied the credit he deserved for doing most of the work.

These trolls pored through GitHub repositories, meticulously counting lines of code to try to prove that the attention Dr. Bouman had been receiving was all a scheme to bolster undeserving women in science at the expense of their male colleagues. They created fake social media profiles purporting to be her, propagating the narrative that this male colleague had really done most of the work.

In the background, Wikipedia editors sifted through the coverage to create a biography article about Dr. Bouman. A deletion discussion began. As far as deletion discussions go, it was open-and-shut: within two hours, it had been closed as “snow keep”.1

Many articles and discussions have already delved into evaluating how much Dr. Bouman contributed to this work, whether she even wanted the media attention that she received, or whether a biography of her should exist on Wikipedia. I won’t repeat those efforts. In fact this post isn’t really meant to be about Dr. Bouman at all, but it provides a concrete example of a phenomenon that I’ve seen time and time again on Wikipedia and in Wikipedia-related discussions.

In a Facebook group called Wikipedia Weekly, a woman known for her incredible work in both creating biographies of women and in addressing the gender gap on Wikipedia posted a screenshot of the deletion discussion, with the simple caption, “UNBELIEVABLE”. Most of the ensuing conversation happened after the deletion discussion had already ended, and so it focused more on meta-discussion of the deletion debate itself rather than the already-decided merits of the article. Quite a few comments lamented the fact that the discussion had been opened in the first place, and pointed to it as proof that women were held to a higher notability standard on Wikipedia than their male counterparts. But within the comment threads that splintered out, another familiar narrative emerged:

What proof is there that the article was nominated for deletion because of her gender?

It’s not assuming good faith to imply sexism had anything to do with the deletion discussion.

You should not be making such emotional comments about this deletion discussion, but rather stick to dispassionate arguments supported by links to policy and sourcing. It’s friendlier to stick to the facts and not assume someone’s motives.

Implying there is sexism involved on the part of those who wish to see the article deleted makes it scary for men to raise concerns about notability on women’s biographies and impossible for true discussion to happen. It’s bordering on harassment to imply the nominator is sexist without any proof.

Assume good faith.

Consider: Only of 18% of biographies on Wikipedia are about women.2 Women’s accomplishments, particularly in science, are often credited to their male colleagues. Women scientists who do receive recognition for their work are often subjected to considerably more scrutiny than their male counterparts, and increasingly that recognition is being written off as nothing more than a thinly-veiled publicity stunt to tout women in STEM regardless of whether they deserve it. There have been a few recent incidents of men publicly “wondering” if maybe women don’t belong in STEM at all, maybe they’re just no good at it.

Consider the backdrop of off-wiki trolls combing through Dr. Bouman’s GitHub commits and concern trolling about all members of the team receiving credit for their work, when such concern is conspicuously absent when men are credited for team achievements.3

Consider the overlap in the talking points of the deletion discussion and those used by these trolls who salivate at the possible opportunity to prove that Dr. Bouman is nothing more than a PR stunt, an undeserving female face slapped on the achievements of male nerds just like them: She was only one of over 200 scientists on the team. She’s just an obscure postdoc who played [a] very small and junior role in the event.4

Like many participants in the Facebook discussion, I’m a woman who works in male-dominated spaces. I’m a part of the 25% of professional programmers who are women,5 and part of the 15% of active Wikipedians who are women.6 I see myself and my female colleagues and friends when I see the treatment of Dr. Bouman. So consider how personal, infuriating, and exhausting it feels to express sadness and frustration at this incident, and once again be greeted with those who insist that this can’t possibly be one of those instances where a woman’s biography is facing joining the pile of deleted biographies of women that were held to a higher standard than those of men. That this incident can’t possibly be based in sexism because there’s no proof the people involved in the discussion are sexists. That sure, sexism may be an issue on Wikipedia, but this isn’t it.

Assume good faith” is a central tenet of Wikipedia editing, and an important one. It enables collaboration over conflict, and I could point to plenty of disputes on Wikipedia that could have ended much more positively had good faith been assumed by all parties. But there are times when the instruction to “assume good faith” is used to shut down any discussion of systemic problems such as sexism on Wikipedia.

I acknowledge that it’s a tough line to walk: most people are not knowingly perpetuating sexism on Wikipedia, and understandably bristle at the implication or accusation that they might be. I certainly don’t enjoy if I’m called sexist, or racist, or accused of any other form of prejudice. However, there needs to be balance between protecting innocent people from these accusations and the knee-jerk shouts of “assume good faith” in any discussion where someone raises the question of if sexism could be a factor. In these types of discussions it seems that the guideline around “assume good faith” is sometimes taken to mean “assume good faith, beyond all reason”. Sure, I could assume that these internet trolls digging through GitHub repositories are acting in good faith—they just want to make sure that Dr. Bouman’s well-deserving colleagues are credited too! And the ones creating fake profiles are acting in good faith—they’re encouraging people to question whether Dr. Bouman really wanted the media attention she’s received! But that is assuming good faith beyond all reasonable interpretation, and insisting women and other commenters do so is effectively weaponizing “assume good faith”.

“Assume good faith” is too often invoked to force women and others who wish to discuss these issues in any venue to bend over backwards to avoid even the slightest implication that a man on Wikipedia might have exhibited sexism in any way, unwittingly or otherwise. We’re forced to smile sweetly and pat your shoulder to reassure you that “no, of course no specific person (and certainly not you!) could be being sexist, I’m speaking generally.” After all, you say, no man has said anything that’s clearly sexist here. There’s no proof. Now if a man had come in and said “women belong in the kitchen and not in the laboratory,” well that would be sexist, but no one’s done that!

Even while writing this post I feel that familiar twinge, that deeply-ingrained habit to reassure you that no, this post isn’t about you. You’re one of the good ones, sweetie. I’m writing about those other times that someone has played the devil’s advocate. No specific time or person, of course, just in general. I’m assuming good faith.

  1. “Snow keep” (or “speedy keep”) is the outcome of a deletion discussion on Wikipedia where the discussion has been so overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the article that it is closed before the standard seven days of discussion has passed. ↩︎

  2. Women in Red ↩︎

  3. I thought this tweet was apt. ↩︎

  4. Katie Bouman deletion discussion ↩︎

  5. Dreamhost: The State of Women in Tech 2019 ↩︎

  6. Systemic bias on Wikipedia: Women are underrepresented ↩︎